Marcel Remy is the grand old man of Swiss Alpinists, and with his sure and steady progress as he conquers a climbing wall, few would realise he is 98-years-old.
Week in, week out, every Monday morning, Remy drives his old Toyota to the indoor climbing centre in Villeneuve on the eastern shores of Lake Geneva, where he meets his son Claude to plot a path to the top.
The veteran slowly puts on his climbing shoes and harness and having picked out his ascent route, makes his way to the 16-metre high wall.
“It gives me a lot of pleasure because you have to work, think and surpass yourself; that’s what suits me well,” Remy said, between his two morning climbs.
“I do it for my health – that’s the first thing. I carry on for my muscles, because I’ve noticed quite often that if I stop for two or three weeks, it’s much harder to start again. It’s better to keep coming often.”
Remy said the secret to his continued success was pacing himself.
“It’s the rhythm that you have to take – for breathing, for the movements,” he explained.
“If I go beyond that, there’s a price to pay afterwards. I can’t tell you exactly what, but either the shoulders or the muscles. It’s better to go calmly, without over-exertion – and then it works.”
‘Do or die’
Climbing has always been major part of Remy’s life. Brought up on tales of the mountains, he never stopped going off to discover the great outdoors and the Alps became his playground.
Remy worked on the Swiss railways and spent all his free time in the mountains, taking his two sons with him.
“He was a tough dad. With him it was do or die, whatever the conditions,” said his oldest son Claude, 68.
But despite his ruggedness, he knew how to pass on his passion for the Alps. Claude and his 65-year-old brother Yves have also become well-known in the climbing world.
In August 2020, the top French climbing magazine Grimper devoted 40-odd pages to their exploits and the most impressive climbs they have accomplished together.
Nowadays, the roles are reversed and it’s Claude guiding his father as he makes his second ascent of the morning at the Villeneuve climbing hall, one of the biggest in Switzerland.
This time, Remy is the first one up the route, making it all the harder.
He scales the first few metres with no trouble at all but in the upper sections, he struggles for several minutes to find the breakthrough that will take him to the top.
It is only with an agile jump that he finally unlocks the path to the summit, nimbly springing off his left foot and instantly landing on the same toehold with his right.
“It’s good!” he says, out of breath, before making his way down.
Back at the bottom, sitting on a bench for a well-earned rest, he clenches his fists and says to his son: “I’m happy.”
Claude explained: “He’s a tough character. He’s very resistant to hardship.
“Even if it’s a very difficult section on the wall, as we saw towards the end, he searches and finally works out how to resolve it because he’s motivated.”
Claude said most people were stunned when they find out how old his father is, but the respect flows in both directions.
“He inspires great admiration in all age groups, even among the very young,” but even so, “he’ll look at how young people climb and try to copy their movements”.
Though he mostly climbs indoors these days, Remy still does sorties into the mountains.
In 2017, at the age of 94, he conquered the Miroir de l’Argentine, a Swiss climbing classic with its 500 metres of limestone wall.
And he shows no sign of stopping.
“If I’m still enjoying it and feeling good, why not continue?” he said.